Pedro Sánchez has become the first European leader to meet Xi Jinping a week after the Chinese leader endorsed his "friendship without limits" with Vladimir Putin in the corridors of the Kremlin. Xi received the Spanish Prime Minister this Friday at the imposing Great Hall of the People in Beijing, near the historic Tiananmen Square, to test his capacity for influence within the European Union and, incidentally, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic channels between the two countries, the unofficial reason for the invitation.
"Here, President Sánchez has sold the meeting with a double slant. On the one hand, it would mean greater recognition of Spain's international status, increasingly re-established after the loss of reputation in the years following the 2008 financial crisis," explained sinologist Xulio Ríos in the pages of CTXT. "On the other, it represents an opportunity to advance a dialogue that could open doors to a cessation of hostilities in Ukraine and, perhaps, to the opening of peace negotiations, under the cover of what appears to be a Chinese effort to put an end to the war amid widespread Western scepticism.
Spain and China are two countries on the rise. Last June's NATO Summit in Madrid put Spain back on the geopolitical map after decades of languishing foreign policy. The Strategic Concept approved at that meeting was particularly tough on China, describing it as an actor that threatens "the interests, security and values" of the Atlantic Alliance. Pressure from the Spanish government and other members managed to soften the text at the last minute but did not erase the US imprint.
Agradezco al presidente Xi Jinping su recibimiento en este viaje histórico.— Pedro Sánchez (@sanchezcastejon) March 31, 2023
Esta visita impulsa nuestras relaciones bilaterales y refuerza la cooperación en diversos desafíos globales.
También hemos mantenido un intercambio sincero sobre la agresión de Rusia contra Ucrania. pic.twitter.com/s1AFqcQl38
China, for its part, plays in a different league. The lifting of the aggressive Covid zero policy to curb contagions has embarked Beijing on an ambitious diplomatic campaign to win supporters. The presentation of the ambiguous 12-point peace proposal for Ukraine, the surprising diplomatic reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the successive rounds of dialogue with European leaders, starting precisely with Sánchez's visit, make clear Xi Jinping's desire to set the agenda.
The Spanish Prime Minister visited the Chinese leader with the intention of conveying the European Union's position and Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenski's claims about the Russian invasion. However, he wanted to know Xi's point of view first hand. His 12-point peace proposal, welcomed in Moscow, raised a wave of criticism in Washington and other Western capitals, which considered the text to be manifestly favourable to the Kremlin's interests. It did not even contemplate the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.
In this regard, the Prime Minister stuck to the United Nations Charter when defending the principles of the international order based on rules and respect for the territorial integrity of the attacked country 'as President Zelenski demands in his formula for peace, which Spain supports'. The maxim of Sánchez's government is that any peace plan must have the approval of Kiev and, ultimately, of Ukrainian society.
In fact, the head of the Executive "encouraged" Xi to have "a conversation" with Zelenski to learn first-hand about his demands. The Ukrainian president has invited the Chinese leader to visit the country, but so far, he has not received a reply. He is not expected to do so, so as not to overly aggravate Russia, which is currently his main ally.
Other issues on the bilateral agenda included resuming trade relations after the impact of the pandemic. China is Spain's main partner outside the European Union. "For Sánchez's government, China is an attractive and key economic partner, also for dealing with third markets, as well as a necessary stakeholder in tackling crucial issues on the global agenda such as climate change, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and global security," explains Mario Esteban, senior researcher at the Elcano Royal Institute. But the United States balances - and in some cases unbalances - the scales in its favour.
China, however, attaches some importance to its relations with Spain, especially because it will take over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union on 1 July. He will lead the EU-27 until the end of 2023. Sánchez himself alluded to this issue to explain that he wanted to seek more spaces for cooperation and dialogue.
At the press conference that followed, the Chinese president greeted King Felipe VI and focused his speech on the 50th anniversary of their bilateral relations. Xi highlighted the collaboration at all levels that has been taking place during this period and assured that both countries act with mutual respect and amid a comprehensive strategic relationship. He also praised Sánchez for his management of the COVID-19 crisis, as well as Spain's economic growth figures.
In the early hours of the morning, Sánchez held two meetings of an economic nature. The first was with a group of Spanish businessmen based in the country. The second, with a group of Chinese tour operators, according to the president's agenda. Earlier, the President of the Government had met with the recently appointed Prime Minister, Li Qiang, with whom he mainly discussed economic matters. He then met with the Speaker of the Chinese National People's Congress, Zhao Leji. He hardly needed to leave the Great Hall of the People.